WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Whoops of victory and tears of joy broke out in the U.S. Senate chamber Tuesday as the legislative body finally passed the bill that will provide health care and disability compensation to millions of veterans sickened by environmental exposures during their time in service.
The 86-11 vote on the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, also known as the PACT Act, came six days after the bill's legislative collapse in the Senate. That failure sparked protests and an around-the-clock vigil by veterans and family members at the U.S. Capitol, drawing national attention to the plight of troops with illnesses related to living and working near open-air waste disposal burn pits or who were exposed to radiation, herbicides and other chemicals encountered on battlefields.
"History is being made by these leaders right here," said Rosie Torres, who cofounded the advocacy group Burn Pits 360 with her husband, former Army officer Le Roy Torres, and others more than a decade ago. "I want to recognize the veterans that didn’t go home, the ones that have walked the halls for 13 years. … We did it all for the fallen that are not here.”"
The bill will now go to President Joe Biden's desk. He is expected to sign it in the coming weeks.
The move followed several days of negotiations between Senate Democrats and Republicans that resulted in three lawmakers offering amendments, on topics that included how to pay for the legislation and protect the Department of Veterans Affairs' private health care program from becoming overwhelmed by an influx of new patients.
Ultimately, the measure sailed past the 60 votes required to pass the bill.
"You did this. You never gave up, and we won," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told the crowd of veterans at the Capitol following the vote.
The Senate voted July 27 to advance the bill, 55-42. But it fell short of the 60 needed for it to head to a final vote.
The failure sparked outrage among veterans and advocates who have worked for years to ensure that post-9/11 veterans and those from other eras who inhaled chemicals or were exposed to carcinogens during service were guaranteed access to health care and disability benefits.
Veterans camped out in 90-plus-degree heat, high humidity and driving rain and storms to force the Senate to reconsider. For six days sympathetic senators, VA Secretary Denis McDonough and advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart, brought food, water and other support to those camped out on the Senate steps.
The bill had already passed the Senate in June on an 84-14 vote, appearing to put it on a glide path to becoming law. But shortly after the Senate vote, House lawmakers discovered language that ran afoul of the Constitution's requirement that tax-related issues originate in the lower chamber. The problematic section would have provided a tax incentive to entice health care workers to move to rural VA facilities.
The House then passed a version of the bill without the tax language in a 342-88 vote earlier this month, kicking it back to the Senate; that vote failed.
But the third time was the charm.
Stewart, who has worked for months to bring the issue before lawmakers -- including the president, who mentioned burn pits in his State of the Union Address this year – said he was "relieved."
"I'm just relieved, man. So happy that [the veterans] can finally go home," Stewart said in an interview with Military.com following passage.
"Today's passage of the PACT Act is a landmark victory for veterans of all ages, of all conflicts and their families," said Tim Borland, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in a statement following the vote. "Too many of our veterans have suffered over the years from effects of toxic exposure, with no medical care, no recompense and no support to their loved ones."
The PACT Act will expand health care and benefits to post-9/11 veterans exposed to burn pits used in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to incinerate trash and other environmental hazards, such as volatile organic compounds, depleted uranium and petrochemicals.
The bill designates 23 diseases as presumed to be linked to military service, paving the way for veterans to receive expedited health services and disability compensation without having to provide proof that their illness was service-related.
The bill also contains provisions for veterans who served in previous conflicts. It would expand benefits for Vietnam-era veterans who have developed hypertension as a result of Agent Orange exposure; would allow veterans and family members sickened by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to file lawsuits; and expand coverage for veterans exposed to radiation during hazardous cleanups in the 1960s and 1970s.
The amendments offered on the legislation included one from Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who proposed that the bill be funded using mainly discretionary funds, the amount of which are determined and set by Congress each year, instead of mandatory spending, which would automatically have to be funded in every budget cycle.
A second was offered by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who sought to cover the cost of the bill by reducing funds to the U.S. Agency for International Development, while Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., offered an amendment to allow veterans in the VA health system immediate access to community care.
All three failed.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the bill to be more than $278 billion over the next 10 years.
VA Secretary McDonough has said that the department will work to ensure that the expansion required to meet the needs of newly eligible veterans would not delay or disrupt care for veterans currently in the system.
"This is a very important piece of legislation. I think it'd be very difficult to implement, but oftentimes, the most important things are difficult, and I think we're ready for it," he said during a hearing in June.
"I'm happy about it. I think this bill is going to save lives. I think it's going to support the veteran community," said Samantha Turner, a former Army officer following the vote. "But I'm also frustrated. I want to make sure that veterans' lives and veterans' legislation are never used as a political football again."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Blackburn's party and state.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @Patriciakime.
-- Drew Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.